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Ben Johnson Came To My (Chess) Birthday Party

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I invited 436 chess celebrities to my second chess birthday party.

Aside from a brief appearance from former world champion Grandmaster Vladamir Kramnik (who claimed he had clicked the Zoom link by mistake), Ben Johnson was the only one who turned up.

That was fitting. Because in a way, my second year in chess both started and ended with Ben Johnson.

For context, I need to talk about my first year in chess.

If Netflix ever buys the rights to that story and turns it into a hit series, the soundtrack will be Perpetual Chess - Ben Johnson’s podcast. Because that was my soundtrack in real life.

In that first year, chess was less of an ambition or hobby for me. It was more of a coping mechanism to get through one of the toughest years of my life.

It was a year in which I lived in a tent with my wife and our infant son, and worked long hard physical days on our farm. I was desperately trying to build a house before winter and grow as much food as I could. There was a lot of digging and a lot of lifting heavy shit, there was a lot of being smelly and cold too. And Ben Johnson and his guests were there with me through all of it.

I remember drilling the seat of my homemade compost toilet down whilst IM David Pruess told me about his experiences with chess and parenting. I harvested courgettes as Braden Laughlin told me of his incredible rating gain. I remember digging steps into the slope through my chestnut orchard whilst GM Boris Gelfand shared stories. I was desperately hacking away with a sledgehammer at a stubborn bit of bedrock in the corner of my volunteer tent terrace whilst Neal Bruce reviewed Winning Chess Strategies. And I remember braiding and hanging freshly dug garlic whilst GM Keith Arkell unveiled to me the concept of a chess style. All those voices and all those tasks. All with Ben and his guests.

At the end of that year, a freak weather event essentially erased the majority of the hard work we had done on the farm. After days of unprecedented heavy rainfall, a flash flood stripped the topsoil and crops we had planted, washed away the building materials we had worked so hard to save up for and soaked and destroyed a lot of our stuff as well.

It wasn’t just things, time and effort I lost that day though, I lost belief in the project and I didn’t know if I had the energy to start all over again.

Ben Johnson: Saviour of the Broken

I wallowed in my own misery for about a month and all through that time I had chess. Chess was the liferaft I clung to that kept me from sinking. It was this compartmentalised part of my life that no storm or flood could touch. I could go to that world and find that, regardless of everything else in my life, it was still the same. It was my escape. It got me through.

Our future plans, my vision for building the best permaculture farm anyone had ever seen, and our planned income from selling our own ecological produce, were all up in the air. In a way, it felt like all I had left was chess.* And so, perhaps naturally, I began to wonder if I could build a career from this chess thing.

*Disclaimer for my editor/wife - I also had my family. My wonderful family. Can’t forget them...

So a career in chess? It was a shot in the dark, and I didn’t have much hope. What did a then 1300-rated, mildly depressed adult have to give to the chess world? I didn’t really know where to begin, but I had always loved writing. So I started there. I shared the story of my first year in chess.

I threw up a Patreon page for the blog, more out of hope than with any real feeling that this could become something viable. And the day after I published that first post?

Someone signed up to my Patreon page.

I was genuinely shocked. The idea that someone would voluntarily part with money to support me writing about chess was crazy to me. Even crazier was that it had happened on the first day of my Patreon launch. If we weren’t so broke at the time, I would’ve bet it was my wife secretly trying to lift my spirits. It was a small thing. But it gave me hope.

I opened the email announcing my new Patron. Who was it that had offered me this glimmer of a future?

Their name was Ben Johnson.

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Ben Johnson: Champion of the People

My first thought was that it was probably some kind of coincidence. It probably wasn’t THE Ben Johnson. I mean, it must be a pretty common name. Except it was him. He had read my blog and liked it enough to give me money to keep doing it.

I was both confused and delighted. Throughout the year Ben shared some snippets from my blog on his Twitter page and even gave the blog a shoutout on his beloved Perpetual Chess Podcast, when later in the year my own financial situation turned around and I became a Patron of his too.

Ben has helped to grow my audience this past year. An audience through which I have unbelievably managed to build a career in chess. So from that seed of hope that he planted, I kept working. I kept pushing. Just like I did on the farm. And unbelievably, this time... it worked. And there doesn’t appear to be any storm on the horizon. Just blue skies and sunshine.

I am now proud to say that I do chess full-time. My work as an Adult Improver chess coach is without a doubt the best job I’ve ever had. That was the dream at the start of the year and it actually happened. I honestly still can’t fucking believe it. I have had plenty of mental ideas in my life and none of them have actually worked. Except for this one.

Incredibly, just one year after I published my first blog post (an article that was read by just a handful of people), I was about to interview Ben Johnson - THE Ben Johnson - for an article that I knew was going to be read by thousands of people.

And I couldn’t help but start by asking: why did Ben decide to sign up to my Patreon page that day?

"Because I've been there. I mean, you know, that's how I started. So when I see people putting out good work and trying hard, I know how much that support means to people. The other reason is because I enjoy your posts. Especially when you meander from chess like in your post about addiction. Trying to contextualise: what the hell am I doing? You know, where does chess fit in my life? I don't think these questions should be shunted to the side. So it resonates with me and I suspect it resonates with others."

And speaking of the others, whilst I talk about how grateful I am for Ben’s help this year, I mustn't forget to thank you. Yes, you.

This blog has changed my life. Now, every day, I wake up and I do chess. That’s my job. It’s insane! And it makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world.

So as I complete my second year of playing chess and my first year of writing about it, I want to say thanks. Thanks for reading. Thanks for turning my latest dream of a chess career into a reality. Thanks to everyone who has read and shared my posts. Thanks to everyone who has reached out with kind messages. Thank you to my students for their trust in me as their chess coach. Thanks to the online chess community, especially the #chesspunks, for making me feel less alone in this ofttimes solitary pursuit that is chess improvement. Thanks to my Patrons for their financial and most of all moral support. And thank you, Ben Johnson, for making me cry with happiness the first day I set out to try and make it work.

So to make a short story long, that is why I invited Ben Johnson to my second chess birthday party. I wanted to thank him personally for his help this year.

That and I wanted to try and get Ulf Andersson's phone number, which I knew he had.

Ben Johnson: Custodian of Chess History

Ben is an incredible journalist. He has brought many stories to us that might never have been told, without his platform. He has brought many people to us that might have been forgotten, if he hadn’t introduced them.

I recently became interested in learning about players of the past. About their lives rather than their chess. I was disappointed to find out that there were so many gaps and unknowns in the lives of the legends of old.

This made me think of the work that Ben is doing in a whole new way. So I asked Ben if he saw himself as a custodian of modern chess history. I asked if he felt the relevance that I felt in him collecting and archiving the stories of chess players that might otherwise have been lost to time.

"If you go back and listen to some of the older pods, a lot of the people I was interviewing in the first one or two years were contemporary people, but it was much more focused on people's lives than chess improvement.

I do feel like one of the beautiful things about chess is the oral history that gets passed down. And now for the first time, we're in this unique moment where that oral history can be disseminated from one person to whoever wants to listen. So I do try to be cognizant of that and reach out to the people who might not get as much attention as they used to, or who might just not be as well-known.

To paint a picture of the broader chess world is my favourite thing to do. I mean, obviously interviewing someone like Fabiano [Caruana] is a pinch-yourself moment. And I obviously prepared for that interview a lot, and felt like I got some good insights from him. But especially with the subsequent launch of the C-Squared podcast (as I've said in interviews before), if I don't get the chance to interview someone like Fabiano, no one's going to be wondering: I just wish I had had a chance to hear what Fabiano thinks. You know, these people do interviews for the most part. So to me, I get the most pride in finding interviews that are from people whom others might not have thought of."

I thought his recent interview with Ulf Andersson showed this. He brought to us stories that might never have been remembered. And 100 years from now, that stuff might never have been known if it wasn’t for Ben and his Perpetual Chess Podcast. That interview was conducted by telephone, which was also how I knew Ben had Ulf’s phone number.

We talked a little about the experience of that interview. It was clear that the stories Ben finds in the chess world are more interesting to him than getting to interview top players - although it’s clear there is a different kind of joy in that too.

The problem seems to be that whilst the stories were his favourite (and my favourite too), they just don’t attract the same viewership. And I get that. Ben pointed to his interview with Tony Ballard who spoke to him from his cell in prison as one of his favourite stories that paint a broader picture of the chess world. A personal favourite of mine is his interview with Stuart Margulies, co-author of Bobby Fisher Teaches Chess. But I know myself that these episode titles are less clickable than those carrying the names of better-known players, coaches and authors.

"I do have to think about the commercial viability of the podcast, but in the long run, irrespective of download numbers, the podcast will be most successful by featuring guests with compelling stories. Two recent favourite guests of mine were with Tony Ballard and Ulf Andersson-

BOOM. Ben didn’t know it. But my ears perked up there. I had to get that phone number.

-and you know, there can be challenges in terms of audio quality or languages and stuff in these interviews. But to get to do these, to get to hear from people like Tony Ballard, is my favourite thing to do."

Ben Johnson: Guardian of Ulf Andersson’s Phone Number

Trying to hold the conversation on the topic of Ulf, I asked Ben if he thought the world’s ability to learn from top chess games had ended. Meaning that because of the influence of powerful computers, players at my level can struggle to watch and understand top-level chess. Had players like Ulf Andersson played the final games that club players can learn from? Had all the games from which most humans could learn already been played?

"Yeah, I would say at your level that's probably true. And probably on my level too. But there is a level where you can still learn so much from contemporary modern chess. Maybe - and I'm just making this up - maybe it's around 2400 or something.

So yeah, for your level, you learn far more from ‘A First Book of Morphy’ or you know, just tracing through chess history, than you would starting now [starting with present-day chess]. But on the other hand, playing your own games and using modern tools is kind of like the best of both worlds. Obviously, using the modern tools is not simple, especially if you're trying to do it on your own, trying to extract lessons from the engine. But this ability to get instant feedback, of course, is unprecedented before the past 15 years in chess history."

I told Ben that I had found areas in modern chess from which I felt I could still learn. Looking at the games of players who are brilliant but not all the way at the top level has been helpful, particularly players who play a lot of open tournaments and often play lower-rated players. The rating disparity in these games often means that the actual chess makes its way to the surface and the stronger players' ideas and plans actually come on the board. I mentioned both Grandmaster Keith Arkell and Grandmaster Irina Krush as players whose games I enjoyed and felt I could still learn from, for this reason.

Ben Johnson: Chess Celebrity

Before I interviewed Ben, I had been struggling to cope with the crippling fame I had begun to experience as the fourth most popular blogger on the second most popular (but best) chess website in the world.

Literally, half-dozens of people were messaging me each month to tell me how much they loved or hated my blog. And every time I fired up a game on Lichess, I found myself with an audience of up to three people. As I approached my 1,000th Twitter follower, I asked Ben how I could cope with my new celebrity status.

Ben recommended I start wearing a hat and sunglasses in public.

On a serious note though, I have struggled with my mental health a little this year. It can be hard to put yourself and your opinions out there and to get all kinds of unsolicited feedback on that work.

Ben didn’t have much to say on this, other than that it was something he struggled with too. Meditation had helped him, and I spoke about my own use of the Wim Hof Method as a sort of meditation for lunatics.

But honestly, just hearing that I wasn’t the only one who found public exposure difficult sometimes was super helpful in itself.

Ben Johnson: Pioneer

Perhaps because of their personal relatability, my favourite episodes of Perpetual Chess remain the Adult Improver episodes. However, with the rise of many other adult chess improvement-themed shows, I noticed that some of the recent Adult Improver episodes on Ben’s show had been slightly more focused on the narrative of the adult chess player’s journey rather than on impressive rating gains. I asked if this was a deliberate choice.

"It wasn't really like from a market perspective. I mean obviously, Kevin's Chess Journey's Podcast which I greatly enjoy, comes to mind as one podcast that only interviews Adult Improvers. [both Ben and I have appeared on this show, see episodes 2 & 65 and episode 12 respectively]

But you know honestly, I just felt like I had heard a few times what I thought to be a legitimate criticism of the sort of Adult Improver ethos: we can't all be obsessed with improvement. There needs to be space in the chess world for people who love chess but may or may not improve or may not even want to improve. And that's totally fine. And I had said that all along during the Adult Improver interviews.

But at the same time, if everyone I'm interviewing is an outlier, I just feel like it creates unrealistic expectations for the people listening. And it might be healthy, or it might not be healthy to spend four or five hours a day on chess. But it's at least a possibility that it's not the healthiest thing.

I felt like it was more important to tell a broader spectrum of stories. I still will feature the sort of outlier improvers. I don't think there's anything wrong with saying like: hey, here's this shining light. And I also think it's nice because if you start chess as an adult, you're not going to be a famous chess player, but at least you can get some recognition. You put in all this work, and it's a very solitary pursuit in many cases, so at least you can get some recognition and share your story in some facets.

I am trying to do more to strike a balance. [...] I mean people have said that chess improvement is not the be-all, end-all. And I felt that way all along, but I also felt like I could have done a better job demonstrating that I feel that way."

This made a lot of sense to me, but also confused me a little. To me, the idea that someone could play chess for fun and not as a form of psychological self-torture was a little strange.

On a serious note, what the game of chess does to us is odd. I had committed, not to chess, but to chess improvement. But why was that? I’ve been into a lot of different things from various sports to video games. But I’ve never wanted to be the best I possibly could be at any of those, well maybe a little bit - but none of those had ever made me stop and question whether or not they were ruining my life in the way that chess has.

I took a moment to ask the man who had interviewed many adults who had dedicated a large portion of their lives to chess, why exactly he thought that chess brought out this maniacal quest for improvement in us (partially) normal people.

For him, the answer was simple:

"The rating."

And I have to say: I agree. The number corrupts us.

Ben Johnson: Adult Improver or Senior Sustainer?

Ben coined the term Senior Sustainer on a recent Adult Improver, or rather a non-improver episode with Paul Hedrick. It occurred to me that I am lucky to have started chess as an adult simply because improvement is easier to come by at my level.

When I first reached out to Ben, this article was going to partly be a reflection on how we both hadn’t improved at all this year. Except that in the month between me sending the invitation to Ben and doing the interview with him, my classical and rapid ratings went up over 100 points. The good thing is that, in what has been a tough month for me, my classical rating went right back down again after two fairly brutal performances by yours truly in the Lichess 45/45 (sorry team!) and Lonewolf Leagues.

"Yeah, my coach is GM Axel Bachmann although we haven't done a lesson in like a month. It's just been one thing after another. I mean I feel like any adult could say this at any time. They could say this sentence: it's been one thing after another and it would basically be true as an excuse for why they haven't been studying chess.

But it really has felt to me like an unusual sequence of events recently that has made it more difficult for me to put time into chess.

But the long and short of it is that I haven't been improving as much as I would hope. Although I do try to set realistic expectations, so my hopes weren't extreme. But it's no big mystery why not. I just haven't been putting in enough time - plain and simple. So I'm hoping to. I'm hoping to rectify that as soon as I get COVID behind me."

Sidenote: Ben went ahead and did this interview whilst sick with COVID. Absolute Hero.

Personally, rating improvement is getting harder and harder to achieve and is coming slower and slower as I improve. But I imagine that when your OTB rating is already sitting above 2100, rating gain is extremely difficult to achieve.

I asked Ben how his chess was progressing this year in the face of his flatlined rating, and if it was difficult to measure your progress when ratings are harder to increase at his level. Interestingly Ben was trying to measure his improvement in other ways than just his rating, and I think that is something we can all learn from. Because just because our rating hasn’t gone up, doesn’t mean we haven’t gotten better at chess.

"I've talked in interviews, and it comes up on Perpetual Chess. It's a constant struggle for me to do a better job of time management. So I could measure myself in that regard.

And I've tried actually to say like, okay, this tournament I'm going to have used 10 minutes for the 1st 15 moves and then half an hour for the next 10 moves and you know or whatever it may be, whatever the exact parameters are based on the time control. But it’s like Botvinnik has said: if you struggle with time trouble, play games where your only goal is to manage your time well.

But every time I do that, I still fail! Not necessarily every time. Sometimes I'll start out a tournament and in the first three rounds I have that goal in mind and I achieve it. But it's like you're an addict. I know you've written about addiction. And once the dam is broken you can't undo it. Like once I fall off the wagon and have some opening that I find particularly vexing or fascinating and I don't follow my parameters for that set of moves, then the rest of the tournament tends to be off-kilter.

But basically, I think you're right. I mean I have a goal that I think is achievable enough that I hopefully don't have to recalibrate my USCF rating. Basically trying to get back to half my peak. So strong, young players notwithstanding, you know, ravages of time notwithstanding, family constraints notwithstanding, I still feel like if I can do the core goal of playing enough, that is doable.

And I didn't have the rating progress I wanted in the year or so of doing this, but I did definitely feel like I got better. So I'm a little frustrated that in the past two/three months, I've just sort of lost the chance to play. But other than that, I'm not at all that discouraged. And you know, as I preach on the podcast: the goal doesn't define me. Like, you know, it doesn't. You know, there are more important things in life. So if I don't make it, that's fine too."

There is a lot to learn from Ben here. Whilst our rating might not have gone up, it is important to know that we can still have improved over the same period. We need to find other ways in which we can measure our progress.

Ben Johnson: Keeper of Improvement Secrets

Whilst Ben and I didn’t have anything to write home about in terms of improvement this year, he had interviewed a lot of people who did. I asked him if he had gleaned anything about how to improve from his interviews with countless successful Adult Improvers.

"One thing is that they play a lot, they play and they review their games as well. Some people that come to mind that had the biggest jumps are JJ Lang when he was living in New York and playing at the Marshall, Vinish Ravuri who’s a teenager so it may or may not be cheating! But I mean he made outsized gains. Megan Chen made a big jump and you see a lot of these people subsequently have had plateaus which is par for the course. It's the way that it goes. But Braden [Laughlin] is another example. In my interview with him, he talked about how his regimen involved just tons of playing and game reviews.

I mean, I do think that there's not so much that we know about best practices. We're still all guessing but it seems pretty clear. And obviously, if you look at the top level, all of the people who became GMs were just obsessed with the game and playing constantly as kids. Obviously, it has to be somewhat serious play, but I really think just playing itself."

So there you have it kids, I mean adults: the key to getting better at playing chess is playing chess. Surprising? Perhaps not. Useful reminder? Definitely. Because as I’ve experienced first-hand, it’s very easy to become distracted by all the chess knowledge and forget the importance of both playing and solving.

I’ve recently changed my study regimen to include more skill-based practice, with more daily solving, pattern recognition work and the inclusion of rapid games to stay sharp between my classical matches. I recommend the same to my students when we are building out their study plan together.

Ben Johnson: Author

If you listen to Ben’s Perpetual Chess Podcast you’ll have known about his upcoming book for a while now. The book is a compilation of improvement tips that Ben has gleaned from interviewing multitudes of adults who have made seriously impressive gains over varying time periods and at various stages of life. The stories themselves are inspirational and the book is a sort of best hits, a compact how-to of adult chess improvement from the most successful and inspirational voices in the community.

"There are chapters, for example, on the importance of playing tournaments. Here are some people who have really gained a lot from playing tournaments and with a few memorable quotes. Here are some people who have had less success with tournaments. And then there's a chapter on tactics. Here is how some people have approached tactics. Here are some people who, believe it or not, have not been as big advocates of tactics. Time trouble, health and fitness, etc. So basically all these sorts of meta-concepts about chess improvement. It's basically just short chapters about each concept with what I consider to be some of the best exemplars and some of the best points raised from all of the interviews I've done.

And it's mostly drawing from the Adult Improver interviews. But like, when Boris Gelfand said: “every move should feel important”, like that's a quote that really resonated with me. So, it's going to find its way into the book, you know? So there are also quotes from the legends where appropriate. So yeah, that's the basic format."

The book is being published by New in Chess and will be available sometime in late 2023.

If you would like to hear more about the book before then and learn more about writing about chess, then you can join both Ben and myself in a Zoom hangout on the 25th of February. Sign up to Ben’s Patreon page or my own Patreon page (or both!) at any tier and you will receive the Zoom link and more information there. We would love to have your support and see you there.

Epilogue: What about Ulf’s phone number?

I made a desperate last-ditch effort for the great Swede’s digits. It didn’t go down too well.

So because I can't give you Ulf's phone number (as of now!), instead I'll give you mine. Or well, not my actual phone number, but at least the opportunity to hop on a call with me.

You can book a free 60-minute trial lesson with me here.

Thanks for reading! Tell me your thoughts in the comments or in a private message if you prefer.

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